A Pandemic Gardener’s Manifesto by Lorraine Johnson
Today’s COVID-19 story is borrowed from one of our favourite people, Lorraine Johnson. She recently wrote this op-ed for the Toronto Star. We think it should be required reading for anyone stuck at home during the pandemic.
Mark and Ben.
A (Pandemic) Gardener’s Manifesto
By Lorraine Johnson
With each lock-down day, legions of new gardeners are born, and what all of these new gardeners are discovering is that planting seeds is a hopeful act.
I’d like to propose a challenge to everyone who is new to gardening or stepping up their activities in response to the pandemic: let’s harness the energy of this growing moment when we’re feeling galvanized to garden, and let’s focus this effort on progressive public purpose. Let’s turn this growing moment into a growing movement.
There are historic precedents, such as the Victory Gardens of WWII, when people responded to the call to grow food on vacant lots, boulevards and front yards. In 1943, roughly 209,200 urban gardens in Canada grew 52 million kilograms of vegetables. Toronto mayor Fred Conboy posed for a newspaper photo while tearing up his lawn and planting potatoes.
These food-growing efforts were organized around military metaphors: land armies, food brigades, crop corps, garden leagues, soldiers of the soil, diggers for victory. A London bomb crater, with vegetables emerging from devastation, is a potent symbol of gardens being enlisted in battle.
It’s easy to see why Victory Gardens are so inspiring right now. When you’re under siege, everything feels connected to war, even something as benign as gardening.
But the analogy is not productive–not for these pandemic times, and not for the chance we have now to sow the seeds of a better future.
Consider the fate of Victory Gardens. When the war ended, so did they. North Americans moved on to the (so-called) greener pastures of the lawn. Within a few decades, the gardens that had helped fight the war were transformed into the lawns that conquered nature, with biodiversity and local food production as collateral damage.
The military metaphors continued, though, with a new target: the pests and weeds that interfere with lawn perfection. Gardeners became willing foot soldiers for the chemical companies on a hunt to develop new uses for their wartime arsenal of poisons.
The pandemic resurgence of interest in Victory Gardens has opened up a crack in lawn and garden conventions. The time is ripe to fill front yards with food, to discover that insects are necessary for pollination, and to see the connections between our gardens and the local ecology.
So, a challenge to gardeners: let’s garden so that our gardens matter:
Let’s grow tons of food. And let’s grow it so it gets to those of us who are most vulnerable and marginalized.
Let’s grow a generation of kids who know where food comes from, who participate in producing some of it, and who thus become healthy eaters. Bonus: they’ll learn about nature.
Let’s grow creativity so that we can see untapped potential garden spaces all around us. (Beans growing on strings up all sunny walls! Pollinator gardens at libraries, where people can “borrow” native seeds to grow habitat!)
Let’s grow access so that everyone who wants growing space has growing space, with priority for those who have been denied access through systemic barriers and/or abrogation of treaties. (A first gesture of good faith? Cede territory for sovereign Indigenous medicine gardens in cities.)
Let’s grow resources. And share resources. (Anyone interested in a Raised-Bed-Building Brigade to get these efficient garden structures out to any low-income community that wants them?)
Let’s grow an enabling culture of “yes” rather than stifle things outside convention. (Backyard hens, I’m talking about you! Pollinator gardens on boulevards, get growing!)
Let’s grow tons of habitat for the health of all life on earth—for the pollinators, especially, who make food, for humans and for all creatures, possible. Surely the pandemic has demonstrated that everyone and all things are connected.
In short, let’s grow tons of gardeners who are cultivation activists—people who take up the trowel and dig for the victory that will be in place when there is abundance, opportunity and possibility for all.
Lorraine Johnson is the author of numerous books on urban agriculture, native plant gardening, stewardship and conservation. She is currently co-writing a book on growing native plants for native pollinators.